Thinking through Technology: The Path between Engineering and Philosophyby Carl Mitcham

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  • Thinking through Technology: The Path between Engineering and Philosophy by CarlMitchamReview by: Arnold PaceyIsis, Vol. 86, No. 3 (Sep., 1995), p. 463Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of The History of Science SocietyStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/235026 .Accessed: 09/05/2014 19:38

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  • BOOK REVIEWS BOOK REVIEWS

    * General

    Carl Mitcham. Thinking through Technology: The Path between Engineering and Philosophy. xii + 397 pp., illus., figs., tables, bibl., index. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994. $47.50 (cloth); $17.95 (paper). "Modem philosophy of human action has con- centrated almost exclusively on doing ... at the expense of making" (p. 154). The extensive lit- erature on ethics and political philosophy largely neglects design, making, and allied topics. In re- pairing this omission, Carl Mitcham lays solid and impressive foundations for developing phi- losophy and (not of) technology. Previously, one sometimes had difficulty differentiating phi- losophy and technology from other aspects of science, technology, and society studies (STS). Now it is clear where the distinctively philo- sophical issues lie.

    Mitcham has divided his book into two parts, the first being a comprehensive history of pre- vious work in philosophy and technology, which is especially valuable for its coverage of the strong German tradition. Here Mitcham points out engineers with philosophical interests and later admits to some affinity with Martin Hei- degger. In the second part, by contrast, he de- velops the subject in new directions by exploring the definition of technology in terms of four spe- cific aspects: technology as object, as knowl- edge, as activity, and as volition. Understanding volition is central to any philosophy of making, and much is written elsewhere alleging that tech- nological determinism blocks volition in some respects. The latter issue has become so promi- nent that it is surprising to find that little is said explicitly about it here. But Mitcham is operat- ing on a different level of analysis, thinking of the will-to-technology as an aspect of creativity (with theological implications for an earlier gen- eration).

    One feature of this argument, and of the book as a whole, is an effort to build bridges between two traditions of thought, one originating with engineers who have written philosophically, the other rooted in the humanities. The discussion is

    * General

    Carl Mitcham. Thinking through Technology: The Path between Engineering and Philosophy. xii + 397 pp., illus., figs., tables, bibl., index. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994. $47.50 (cloth); $17.95 (paper). "Modem philosophy of human action has con- centrated almost exclusively on doing ... at the expense of making" (p. 154). The extensive lit- erature on ethics and political philosophy largely neglects design, making, and allied topics. In re- pairing this omission, Carl Mitcham lays solid and impressive foundations for developing phi- losophy and (not of) technology. Previously, one sometimes had difficulty differentiating phi- losophy and technology from other aspects of science, technology, and society studies (STS). Now it is clear where the distinctively philo- sophical issues lie.

    Mitcham has divided his book into two parts, the first being a comprehensive history of pre- vious work in philosophy and technology, which is especially valuable for its coverage of the strong German tradition. Here Mitcham points out engineers with philosophical interests and later admits to some affinity with Martin Hei- degger. In the second part, by contrast, he de- velops the subject in new directions by exploring the definition of technology in terms of four spe- cific aspects: technology as object, as knowl- edge, as activity, and as volition. Understanding volition is central to any philosophy of making, and much is written elsewhere alleging that tech- nological determinism blocks volition in some respects. The latter issue has become so promi- nent that it is surprising to find that little is said explicitly about it here. But Mitcham is operat- ing on a different level of analysis, thinking of the will-to-technology as an aspect of creativity (with theological implications for an earlier gen- eration).

    One feature of this argument, and of the book as a whole, is an effort to build bridges between two traditions of thought, one originating with engineers who have written philosophically, the other rooted in the humanities. The discussion is

    very fruitful, but the emphasis is always on en- gineers, not practitioners of other branches of technology. Similarly, discussion of the defini- tion of technology stresses engineering but largely ignores such subjects as agriculture or genetic manipulation. Relatively little is said, ei- ther, about science or its history. As somebody who has written about the definition of technol- ogy, I am aware of the problems entailed in drawing boundaries too widely, but I would still query whether more should have been said about the relationship of engineering to comparable bi- ological and chemical technologies. A wide def- inition might also have been used to clarify the role of activity and volition in engineering prac- tice.

    The book is free of the obscurity often found in writings on philosophy and succeeds in its stated aim of avoiding the "arid, sterile" ap- proach of some work on the philosophy of sci- ence (p. 271). A nice touch is the series of por- traits of philosophers of technology. However, the text is solid and detailed, and one cannot read it quickly. If used with students, just a few pages could occupy a whole semester. But this is an important and valuable book, and a milestone in the development of its subject.

    ARNOLD PACEY

    Howard P. Segal. Future Imperfect: The Mixed Blessings of Technology in America. xviii + 245 pp., illus., index. Amherst: University of Mas- sachusetts Press, 1994. $40 (cloth); $15.95 (pa- per).

    Future Imperfect explores many of the themes examined by Howard Segal in his first book, Technological Utopianism in American Culture (Chicago, 1985). Spanning the early nineteenth century to the Great Depression, Technological Utopianism was a pathbreaking book, part of the new social and cultural history of technology that emerged in the 1980s. Future Imperfect car- ries on that tradition, but, like many collections of essays, the book is rather eclectic and uneven, despite the author's substantial efforts to revise,

    very fruitful, but the emphasis is always on en- gineers, not practitioners of other branches of technology. Similarly, discussion of the defini- tion of technology stresses engineering but largely ignores such subjects as agriculture or genetic manipulation. Relatively little is said, ei- ther, about science or its history. As somebody who has written about the definition of technol- ogy, I am aware of the problems entailed in drawing boundaries too widely, but I would still query whether more should have been said about the relationship of engineering to comparable bi- ological and chemical technologies. A wide def- inition might also have been used to clarify the role of activity and volition in engineering prac- tice.

    The book is free of the obscurity often found in writings on philosophy and succeeds in its stated aim of avoiding the "arid, sterile" ap- proach of some work on the philosophy of sci- ence (p. 271). A nice touch is the series of por- traits of philosophers of technology. However, the text is solid and detailed, and one cannot read it quickly. If used with students, just a few pages could occupy a whole semester. But this is an important and valuable book, and a milestone in the development of its subject.

    ARNOLD PACEY

    Howard P. Segal. Future Imperfect: The Mixed Blessings of Technology in America. xviii + 245 pp., illus., index. Amherst: University of Mas- sachusetts Press, 1994. $40 (cloth); $15.95 (pa- per).

    Future Imperfect explores many of the themes examined by Howard Segal in his first book, Technological Utopianism in American Culture (Chicago, 1985). Spanning the early nineteenth century to the Great Depression, Technological Utopianism was a pathbreaking book, part of the new social and cultural history of technology that emerged in the 1980s. Future Imperfect car- ries on that tradition, but, like many collections of essays, the book is rather eclectic and uneven, despite the author's substantial efforts to revise,

    Isis, 1995, 86: 463-534 ? 1995 by The History of Science Society. All rights reserved. 0021-1753/95/8401-0001$01.00

    Isis, 1995, 86: 463-534 ? 1995 by The History of Science Society. All rights reserved. 0021-1753/95/8401-0001$01.00

    463 463

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    Article Contentsp.463

    Issue Table of ContentsIsis, Vol. 86, No. 3 (Sep., 1995), pp. 373-540Front MatterFriction and Lubrication in Medieval Europe: The Emergence of Olive Oil as a Superior Agent [pp.373-393]The Snakestone Experiments: An Early Modern Medical Debate [pp.394-418]Recluse, Interlocutor, Interrogator: Natural and Social Order in Turn-of-the-Century Psychological Research Schools [pp.419-439]History of Science Society Distinguished LectureScience as a Weapon in Kulturkampfe in the United States during and after World War II [pp.440-454]

    News of the ProfessionEloge: Churchill Eisenhart, 11 March 1910-25 June 1994 [pp.455-456]

    Letters to the Editor [p.457]Essay ReviewScience, Technology, and Higher Education under Nazism [pp.458-462]

    Book ReviewsCollections [pp.528-534]

    Generaluntitled [p.463]untitled [pp.463-464]untitled [pp.464-465]untitled [pp.465-466]untitled [pp.466-467]untitled [pp.467-468]

    Antiquityuntitled [pp.468-469]untitled [p.469]untitled [pp.469-470]untitled [pp.470-472]

    Middle Ages & Renaissanceuntitled [pp.472-475]untitled [p.475]untitled [pp.475-476]untitled [pp.476-477]untitled [pp.477-478]untitled [p.478]untitled [pp.478-479]untitled [pp.479-480]untitled [pp.480-481]untitled [pp.481-482]untitled [pp.482-483]

    Seventeenth Centuryuntitled [pp.483-484]untitled [pp.484-485]untitled [pp.485-486]untitled [pp.486-488]untitled [p.488]untitled [pp.488-489]untitled [pp.489-490]untitled [pp.490-491]untitled [p.491]

    Eighteenth Centuryuntitled [pp.491-492]untitled [p.492]untitled [p.493]untitled [p.494]untitled [pp.494-495]untitled [pp.495-496]untitled [pp.496-497]untitled [pp.497-498]untitled [p.498]untitled [pp.498-499]untitled [pp.499-500]

    Nineteenth Centuryuntitled [pp.500-501]untitled [pp.501-502]untitled [pp.502-503]untitled [pp.503-504]untitled [p.504]untitled [pp.504-505]untitled [pp.505-506]untitled [pp.506-507]untitled [pp.507-508]untitled [p.508]untitled [pp.508-509]untitled [pp.509-510]untitled [pp.510-511]untitled [pp.511-512]untitled [pp.512-513]

    Twentieth Centuryuntitled [pp.513-514]untitled [pp.514-515]untitled [p.515]untitled [pp.515-516]untitled [pp.516-517]untitled [pp.517-518]untitled [pp.518-519]untitled [pp.519-520]untitled [p.520]untitled [pp.520-522]untitled [pp.522-523]untitled [pp.523-524]untitled [pp.524-525]untitled [pp.525-526]untitled [p.526]

    Sociology & Philosophy of Scienceuntitled [pp.526-527]

    Reference Toolsuntitled [pp.527-528]

    Back Matter [pp.535-540]

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